Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera is a much-travelled controversy. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics by Tim Rice, it first opened in New York in 1971. Only eight years after, it graced the stage 3,358 times, and has been documented for on tapes and DVDs for home use. Over three decades later, it is still much coveted. The show came to the MUSON Centre, Lagos, Nigeria as stage performance between 3rd and 5th February 2006 though the relevance of this timing is quite elusive.
It is about the passion, the last 7 days of Jesus Christ stripped of its predestination angle and it enlarges the characters as purely products of their circumstances. (Though Jesus in his response to Pilate sings: ‘Everything is fixed. And you can’t change it.’) The upcoming star director, Makinde Adeniran, who is also the set designer, situates a black and white chequered platform like a chessboard at the left side of the stage depicting all human beings having a dark and a bright side which we choose to play up depending the situation we find ourselves. On the right side is a two storey scaffold set. Throughout the performance, there are extraordinary kinetics of climbing by the cast – at once fast and intense and energetic, also slow, feeble, woozy, suggesting the ups and downs of daily existence.
Each of the characters encounters Jesus (Benneth Ogbeiwi) in an unexpectedly unique way. The apostles are convinced that Jesus is the messiah who is poised to lead a revolt against the Jewish and the Roman hierarchies; who will in the end, govern the society and make them his cabinet ministers. In fact the betrayal of Judas (Emmanuel Essien) betrayal is targeted towards this end. He thinks that by the time he puts his master in the hands of the chief priest and elders, Jesus would put up a fierce resistance and the awaited revolt will spark. So when he comes with his dubious kiss and the apostles want to put up a fight, Jesus asks them cool it. This Jesus is a lover, not a combatant.
Also disappointed is a lover: Ms Mary Magdalene (Anugo Vivian Nneka). She is a top escort in the town who loves and knows many men. Hearing about a powerful celebrity, a superstar called Jesus, she decides to deploy her resources to know him too. ‘He is a man. He’s just a man.’ And she has known many men. ‘He’s just one more.’ She sings a love tune to him, oils his legs, and wipes them with her hair which is ticklish and beyond. Eventually, she comes to a different order of knowledge.
The costumes range erratically from the historical (Jesus) to the refreshingly contemporary (Judas and the apostles, soldiers) and to the stylised (Herod’s court). Unlike Jesus, in order to make Ms Magdalene a citizen of today rather than look like exotic biblical figures, the director looks beyond the dress to the voice. Nneka’s voice not only adds intensity and sensuality to the Magdalene role, it brings grace and first class vocal prowess to her anthem, I Don’t Know How to Love Him.
Not in the depiction of emotions that is the staple of operas, the performance’s exquisiteness but comes more from the songs, their delivery, the orchestral flourishes and the accompanying rock instrumentation utilized in the score. They drive the action forward with enough rapid mood changes- sometimes very effective, sometimes frantic; enough individual and group movements whose choreography ignores brilliance even for the hilarious scene of Jesus in King Herod’s court and the scene of 39 lashes.
Jesus Christ Superstar is not a Christian opera of course. Tim Rice does not believe that Jesus is the son of God neither is he God. And the opera drives home the point. Often in the lyrics: ‘he is a man. he is just a man.’ Before the curtain draws, there is no resurrection, Jesus just dies off. Since its inception, charges of blasphemy have been levelled against it. First is the commingling the gospel with rock music which this current Pope, Benedict XIV regards as ‘a vehicle for anti-religion.’ Two is its pro-Judas leaning. There is the sexual intimacy between Jesus and Mary Magdalene or phrased differently, the sexual intimacy Mary has for Jesus which he seems to relish but does not all that reciprocate. But the hardliners did not take to the streets in fatal protests, burning theatres. And yet the institution that presents this delectable production is DMC of a Catholic Church. Not as its catechetical teaching but as opinion of an artist even though it is theologically wrong or better still, debatable. A religion, to stay alive, does not only need pious adherents, it also needs enemies. It is in its response to its enemies and non-adherents that its true worth is revealed.